Abacos, Bahamas Sail: 40th Sewanee Reunion Trip

(You may click on any small group of photographs to pull up a full-screen version)

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MARSH HARBOUR, ABACOS, BAHAMAS – The thick humid tropical air hung heavy as a warm wet blanket around me as I stepped off the twin-engine Silver Airways flight from Orlando onto the tarmac of the Leonard M. Thompson International Airport at Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island – on the northernmost archipelago of the Bahama Islands.

Silver Airways

Forty years it had been, more or less (other than possibly a ten-year reunion or two in between), since I had seen some of the men with whom I was about to spend a week sailing the Sea of Abaco.  The last time we spent as much time together we were students at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee and the year was 1976.

I had left the high deserts of the Southwest the day before, spent the night at the Hyatt Regency at the Orlando International Airport, and caught the noon flight to Marsh Harbour. It was the best connection I could make traveling all the way from El Paso, Texas to the northern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

Getting used to the intense humidity and the tropical heat was the first order of business for this “Desert Rat”. It had been 15 percent humidity and 90 degrees in West Texas yesterday.  Today the tropical heat soaked me with 92 percent humidity and 95 degree temperatures as I made my way into the terminal and through customs, the “feels like” temperature was 108 degrees. Move slowly and find shade, I thought.

Get me to the boat and the water!

Bavaria 46-Sea Fever

My father taught me to love the sea. We shared this poem by John Masefield (“Sea Fever“) in our later lives together, on and around the water.  I learned to sail because of him, in spite of being a so-called desert rat: born and raised in the high Chihuahua Desert on the banks of the Rio Grande.  The summer of 1967, my parents packed me off to Charleston, South Carolina to live with my Godfather, Addison Ingle, and his four sons in the Battery neighborhood of Charleston Harbor…learning to sail at the Carolina Yacht Club, a historic sailing club right in the heart of the Battery.

It worked, and I’ve sailed as often as I could ever since….from those Charleston dinghies, to Sunfish board boats, to a Cal 20 on Elephant Butte Lake, to Dad’s Catalina 36 in Newport Beach, California. I’ve sailed in the oceans off Hawaii, Sweden and Norway, Florida, Texas, Southern California and Baja California (Mexico).  I’ve sailed lakes large and small.  This adventure in the Abacos would top them all, I was sure.

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My father, in the striped pants, steers a fine course threading the sand bars of the Rio Grande in our Sunfish sailboat.  Note the daggerboard raised to slip over the shallows.

I was excited to get to the boat and see my mates! The taxi ride was pleasant to the Harbour View Marina, where Mike Graham kept his beautiful 46-foot Bavaria sailboat.  Many of the chauffeurs from the airport use large SUV’s, used to large groups of travelers.  The roads are tiny and traffic flows haltingly through the single traffic-signaled intersection in town, Marsh Harbour has a tension like the mixture of crazed first-world dropouts and third-world island homies ought to have.  Hold your breath as oncoming traffic approaches, or you turn at an intersection, though.  This island nation has British roots, so driving is on the “wrong side” of the road!

There would be seven of us on this trip, plenty of berths and deck room for all on board the “Luna Sea“. Before we shoved off, provisions had to be gathered, and two groups were appointed to secure those: one to the liquor store across the street from the marina, and one to the nearby grocery.  A few stayed on board to help Captain Mike get the boat ready for the trip.

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The crew of the “Luna Sea“, a 46-foot Bavaria owned by Mike Graham (back left), getting set to shove off from Marsh Harbour. The author is on the right.

For some reason, I was appointed to the liquor-run team. It was there where I had the shock of my life. We only had to cross the street in front of the marina and walk a block to the Jimmy’s Liquor Store.  Good thing we had a crew to watch out for each other!  Cars drive on the left in the Bahamas (British roots)…thus, crossing a street requires a bit of focus for those of us from America:  Look right, look left, look right again!

As I stood in the middle of the store, talking to a man who encouraged us to buy a couple of cases of a specific brand of Bahamian beer, a shout from the door pulled my head to the left with a jerk “What the f**k!  Where did you get that ink on your leg?

Frozen in his tracks, jaw slack, was a stunned young architect from San Francisco named Peter Colling.  He just happened to stop by Jimmy’s to pick up some beer on his way to the remodeling project he was doing on his house over in Elbow Cay.

We both stood there, staring at each other’s legs.  Stunned silence reigned. It was weird. There, on each of our calves, was the same tattoo: the Liverpool Football Club logo, albeit his ink was a bit larger than mine and included the five Cup Championship Stars across the top. The back story is longer than space I can provide here. Suffice to say, Liverpool FC is everywhere in this world! This was definitely a fan moment to document:

The booze tab, which we split between the six drinkers amongst the crew, was around $400 for the eight day trip. It included a good measure of rum, gin, vodka and plenty of beer, Bahamian beer (Kalik or Sands)…hydration being the key concept. Our skipper had advised us the boat was full of leftover wine from his son’s recent wedding at the nearby Firefly Sunset Resort across the bay in Hope Town, where we were heading that afternoon. We were well stocked.

The grocery tab was about the same as the booze tab. It included some steaks to go with the anticipated lobster and fish we were hopeful of catching and grilling. Breakfast and lunch repast was aimed at easy fixing. Plenty of bottled water and mixers were needed, as well. The tab could have been much greater had we not planned to eat at several good restaurants in the marinas and towns on the Cays making up the Abacos during this trip. There is an abundance of fine dining on these islands, I found.

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Luna Sea tied up snugly for night’s berth.

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Hope Town Inn & Marina

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New free-diving scuba scooter available for rent in Hope Town.

There’s a fabulous view over the island from the top of a historic lighthouse built in 1864 on the hill behind the Hope Town Inn & Marina, where we stayed the night. The Island we are visiting is called Elbow Cay (pronounced “Key”) and this lighthouse is named for the reef off-shore in the Atlantic Ocean which deserves a wide berth:

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Elbow Reef Lighthouse from 1864 still operates with kerosene lamps.

The walk to the lighthouse and an ascent up the narrow old spiral stairs to the platform at the top is a mandatory part of any visit to Hope Town and Elbow Cay.

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Fred Owen and Mike Graham atop the Elbow Cay Lighthouse

 

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Unique handle on the small door at the top of the Elbow Reef Lighthouse.

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Dinner would take us across the harbor, in a water taxi we caught right by the Marina and then to a golf-cart shuttle ride, to the renowned Abaco Inn & Resort...perched on a ridge on Elbow Cay overlooking both the Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of Abaco.

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Famous Abaco Inn & Resort on Elbow Cay.

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Windy deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from the Abaco Inn.                                                          (L to R) John Upperco, Mike Graham, Dudley West and Fred Owen.

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Sunset across the Sea of Abaco from the Abaco Inn, where we sail tomorrow!

Time to sail.  The next morning, we left Hope Town Harbor for the string of cays that run southeast to northwest along the Abaco Reef.  Destination, Green Turtle Cay and the Bluff House Beach Resort & Marina. A stop for some snorkeling was in order on the way, so we anchored near some large coral heads in the most beautiful crystalline water I had ever seen!

I discovered that the water color is affected by the underlying bottom composition:  above green “pastures” of seagrass, the water has a greenish hue; over white sandy bottoms, the impossible light blue hue rules; past the reefs in the deep shelf of the Atlantic, the water becomes dark deep blue. One can easily see fifty feet the water is so crystal clear!

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Mark Harbison enjoying the sailing from the cockpit of the Luna Sea.

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John Upperco and Buddy Dortch appreciating the shade.

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Diving the Coral HeadsDave-snorkeling

We arrive off New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay, and anchor in the bay.  The Zodiac is our shuttle to and from the pier, easily boarded off the beautiful swim platform that lowers from the stern transom of the Luna Sea.  On shore, we have a few things to pick up, there’s a grocery and hardware store right up the main street off the dock area. Also, a convenient pub with some shaded chairs on the front porch.  New Plymouth was founded in the late 1700’s by “loyalists” to the British Crown, who were escaping the Revolutionary War in the Colonies…what would later be the United States of America.

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Raymond Leathers and Buddy Dortch enjoy the shade while on shore in New Plymouth Town.

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The author and Fred Owen stop by the famous “Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar” for a gallon jug of her world famous Goombay Smash!

Back to the Luna Sea, we weighed anchor and took a short cruise along the coast to a protected cove on the northwestern end of Green Turtle Cay, where you will find the Bluff House Beach Resort & Marina and the Green Turtle Club .  Follow those hotlinks to the websites for those establishments. The Green Turtle Club website even has a live webcam!

We had reservations for rooms that night at the Bluff House, some of us stayed onboard the boat and some stayed in a couple of beach-facing rooms.  Though I was becoming acclimated to the heat and humidity, being on the water most of the time helped, and it was always nice to have dockside hookups for the A/C in the Luna Sea’s cabins.

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After checking into the marina, we welcomed Mark Harbison safely on board.  He finally had arrived a day late via a re-routed flight to Fort Lauderdale, a next-day flight to Marsh Harbor, and an accident in his taxi to meet the ferry ride to the crew awaiting him on Green Turtle Cay.  We settled into our accommodations both on board and in a few beach front rooms at Bluff House.  Shortly thereafter, the whole crew now together, gathered on the beach for a Sunset Appreciation Party…just us, the beach, the Sea of Abaco, and the sunset!

 

Bluff House Beach Party

Sunset Appreciation Party, Bluff House Beach, Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas 2017.          (L to R) Mark Harbison, Mike Graham, Fred Owen, Buddy Dortch, Dave Etzold.

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“Don’t be looking for (thunder) storms on a sunny day!” – Raymond Leathers

Onwards, the next day, we sailed to our anchorage at a secret lobster reef known only to Captain Mike.  Before then, we met up with our mate, Christian Daves, who sped over from West Palm Beach on the “Blarneymon“.  This beautiful power boat will add a new element to this adventure in the coming days.  We’ll be “camping” on the water tonight, self sustained and without power for the A/C that the Luna Sea offers when we’re tied up at a marina with power hookups. The night breeze will keep us comfortable in the middle of the summer, we hope.

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Christian Daves joins us with the “Blarneymon”.

Along the route to our lobster hunting grounds is a famous natural connection to local wildlife, on the northwest end of Nunjack Cay (also known as Manjack Cay).  Awaiting us is a protected cove and beautiful white sand beach – where you can hand-feed and swim with gentle sting rays…and an occasional small shark or barracuda!

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Stingray Beach-eye candy

Who wouldn’t want to do this?  The feel of their smooth skin rippling past your feet and ankles as they cruise for food is an eerie sensation…reaching down to touch them as they glide by gets the adrenaline flowing!  Try to offer them a bit of food, if you dare go near those tooth ridges they use.  Their mouth being on their underside makes for an interesting experience!  Thoughts of Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter“, swim through our heads as those tails whip around casually.

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Mike Graham attracts some sting rays with a little food.

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“No, not a sting ray….” ponders Raymond Leathers.

Back to the boats and, together with the Blarneymon, the Luna Sea headed off to our anchorage for the night at Angelfish Point, and the lobster hunt and grill party this evening! Could there be a more sublime vacation?

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Sewanee classmates, room mates and fraternity brothers, Dave Etzold and Chris Daves, as Dudley West looks on, anticipating a good lobster hunt!

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Raymond Leathers, Mike Graham, Fred Owen, John Upperco, Dave Etzold, Buddy Dortch, Chris Daves, and Mark Harbison…the Sewanee Reunion Crew of the Luna Sea, Abacos, Bahamas 2017.

VIDEO CLIP OF ANGELFISH POINT SUNSET THAT NIGHT  (turn up your volume):

Sunset-Angelfish Point

Captain Mike-Satisfaction Sunset

…and the Captain said, “It is good…

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Next stop is Spanish Cay, the furthest West we strayed on our sailing adventure in the Abacos.  Spanish Cay has its own private airstrip and is owned by one man whose huge super yacht is sometimes seen tied up in the harbor at the marina. Lots of sharks hang around these piers, all the time, mostly Nurse Sharks.  They are attracted by the fish leftovers cleaned and gutted on the dock by the many fishermen who like the reefs just offshore.  An eight or nine foot shark of any kind sliding through the water at your feet, along the boardwalk of the marina’s piers, is a memorable, if not intimidating sight.

We found the staff in the marina and restaurant/bar lazy and non-attentive. The three bedroom suite we rented for the night, adequate, but home to some resident rats. What could one expect on such a man-trip in the loneliest reaches of the Bahamas? Anything less would seem artificially constructed. We were after authentic, were we not?

Shark-Spanish Cay

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The next morning, we went snorkeling and fishing on Chris Daves “Blarneymon“.  Just west northwest of Spanish Cay are the Pensacola Cays and reefs.  This is where Chris and the boys had tried their hands at deep water fishing for grouper a few times before.  I knew how to handle a rod and reel, barely.  These guys were born into this.

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First, the bait fish had to be caught.  These bait fish, for a landlubber from the  desert, looked like the full-thing to me!  What a shock.  I could image what we were trying to snag if the bait was 7″ to 9″ long itself!  Well, as it turns out, I was in for a shock, indeed!

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Chris and Mike handled the majority of the tackle setup and bait fishing. Now and then, one of the rest of us would have a go at bait fishing.  It was fun to snag one of these little yellow fins, they gave a nice little fight.  A small orange grouper even showed up. What more could we ask?

Now, Chris pulled out the heaviest rod and reel on the boat.  It was showtime! One very large-looking hook was attached to the line with a stout leader, then one of those big bait fish was hooked through the mouth and gut, hiding the hook.  Over the side and “…down about 75 or 100 feet”, says Captain Christian, “to where the big old grouper live in their holes along the sloping reef wall”.

Fishing-Chris Ray Fred

Often good-sized bait like these would be targets of barracuda or sharks, this day we were lucky.  Soon, Chris snagged and brought in a really good sized grouper…maybe 15 or 20 pounds, we didn’t have a scale. It was a good fight.  All on board cheered!  This would be dinner after filleting the best meat off of it, we’d have maybe five or six pounds of delicious grouper to bake in the oven tonight or tomorrow.

 

But that wasn’t the end, by a long shot.  Mike took the next cast of the big rod, launching the bait and line way out away from the boat, letting the line run as the bait sank deep into the dark blue depths. Now and then he would just play the line a bit, jerking it to attract attention by movement of the bait.  He tried it for fifteen or twenty minutes, then handed the rod to over me, “Here, Dave, you give it try.”  So I did. But, remembering what Chris had said about deep denizens, I played out the line quite a bit more, maybe another 40 or 50 feet. I didn’t have the rod ten minutes before it began.

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Captain Chris on the left, guiding the boat, Dave Etzold in the center with the big rod, and Mike Graham coaching on his right, as I get a hit!

The strike I felt wasn’t vicious, it was powerful and drawn out, and I let it run a bit before shouting “Fish on!“, as I pulled back sharply on the rod in my hands.  All of a sudden, there was a screaming high-pitched hum from the reel as the line ran out as fast as I’d ever seen. “You got one and its a big one!” shouted Chris, turning the boat so that we could keep the line in sight.  He dashed over to me to test the line, the hook set and the weight of the catch, his arms bulged and back bent with the pull of the fish I’d snagged.

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He handed me back the rod, with some good instructions, and strapped the harness with the cup for the base of the rod on me, as I took up the fight again. Chris reached up and adjusted the pressure knob for me on the heavy reel as the line still sang out madly.  I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders.

Man, was this thing pulling? What was it?  My hands were clenched tight and my back and legs were firmly set. The boys had all gathered around and to the side of me, watching the spectacle.  Shouts of advice were raining in. Bets were flowing whether it was a shark, a grouper or even a sea turtle…maybe even a barracuda!  I barely seemed to reel in some line, when it immediately ran back out…again and again, as I hauled back on the rod to gain leverage carefully, steadily.  Wow!  What have I got?

Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Thank God I had the harness and bracket. My shoulders and back ached. Ten more minutes crept by. I was pulling in more line now than giving.  It was coming up, whatever it was.

Then, it surfaced, a huge brown striped grouper!  Everyone gasped and cheered!  “It’s a giant!” someone shouted.  “Get the boathook, Mike!” ordered Captain Christian.

While I kept the line taught and the rod out of their way, Mike reached overboard and hooked the side of the grouper’s head, while Chris donned a glove and reached down to grab its jaw.  The two of them pulling that way could barely lift the fish out of the water!  There were audible grunts and groans as they held on, then slowly manhandled the beast aboard. Thud!!  It fell to the deck. What a beast!

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Dave-Grouper

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Dave Etzold, with the record Goliath Grouper caught off Pensacola Cays, Abacos, Bahamas 2017.

What a fish!  What an experience!  We figured it must have been fifty-some inches and upwards of 80-pounds, a record catch for Chris, Mike, Fred or anyone they had ever known fishing these parts!  Of course, this desert rat can barely believe the blessing of this experience. Truly a life moment. I’ll cherish it.

After mandatory photos, the trophy was thrown back into the deep blue, and seemed to suffer no harm from the experience. The hook had snagged in his front lip/jaw and was removed with pliers, the boat hook had not penetrated any significant muscle or tissue when he was pulled on board.  We only took five minutes or so to take the photos.  I now have the leader that was chewed up in the process of landing this behemoth, and several of the most incredible photos of this memory for a lifetime.

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Stowing our fishing gear, cleaning up and making sure the remaining bait fish and the grouper were in the iced fish lockers, we took off for a special spot that our Captain wanted to show us.  Before sunset, and a celebratory dinner planned at a restaurant Christian recommended in Fox Town, we headed over to a nearby natural feature for a bit of man-made fun.

Chris had done this many times before, he called it “Shooting the Haulover” …and we had another fantastic chapter of this adventure about to unfold.

We were on the far western reaches of the Abacos, and made our way south and west past Hog Cays to the end of Little Abaco Island, near a town called Crown Haven, harking back to the reason these islands were populated with British citizens escaping the American Revolution.  The tides flow north and south, two times daily, though a gap in the rocky stretch just west of Crown Haven, and that gap has a name: “The Haulover”. 

Abaco Islands Map-Commonwealth of the Bahamas-HR

Haulover Map-Abaco 2017

It’s a dangerous, narrow, shallow gap in a long stretch of rocky coast.  Coral and sharp rocks line the small gap through which the currents surge, switching the flow from one direction to the other with the tides.  In a small boat, making the “Haulover” might save several hours time traveling from the Northern Little Bahama Bank to the Southern Little Bahama Bank.  Since these islands have been known, the Haulover has been used…sometimes to the detriment of an unlucky Captain who doesn’t know the tides and currents that well.  See for yourself in the video clip below, then you judge!

PLEASE CLICK ON THE VIDEO BELOW, WATCH CLOSELY:

(Be sure to turn up your volume)

After that, we could have said it was a day!  But, we had all been looking forward to a dinner, now a celebratory dinner for several reasons, at a small simple restaurant in Fox Town.  Well, most of us were looking forward to that….some took naps after the hard day.

Sliding across the Sea of Abaco in the Blarneymon was smooth and fast, soon we were in Fox Town and pulling up to an old pier at their main dock.  Above us on the higher ground of the shoreline, a small yellow hut with a deck. Our destination.

Da Valley Restaurant & Bar” is a classic.  There was no A/C in the bar as we walked in.  Sand tracked in from outside covered the bar floor with a noisy natural grit. There was a TV hanging from the wall above the bar and two locals in conversation over on the side near the toilets. Gladly, the private dining room beyond and behind the double doors was in the process of cooling down for our anticipated dinner. Chris had called ahead.  We ordered just about everything on the menu, and washed it down with twice as much beer.

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Rewards for a long, successful day!  Fish stories abound, sailing yarns flowed as easily as the beer and alcoholic beverages.  I highly recommend this out-of-the way stop.  About $25 each, plus booze, and we were stuffed.  Cheers!

Now, back on the Blarneymon, to re-bord the Luna Sea and finish our visit to the western end of the Abaco Sea.  Christian must get back to West Palm Beach for business, and we bid a fond farewell to our mate.  He leaves us on Saturday morning, as the rest of the crew attend to the sailboat for a long sailing reach to Great Guana Cay and the Orchid Bay Marina, one of our favorites.

Captain Mike-at the helm

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Other than the Orchid Bay Marina, where we stayed the night, Great Guana Cay is also known for two other famous features: an ultra-exclusive private residential reserve, once a Disney property, now known as Baker’s Bay; and the other, a beach bar known for their Sunday pork barbecue buffet, namesake punch and deck dances: Nippers Beach Bar & Grill. Needless to say, we didn’t try Baker’s Bay.

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Great Guana-Nippers Pool

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Sun sets at Orchid Bay, as we bring this adventure to an end.

We’ve had great times, shared wonderful stories, lived small adventures, seen incredible wonders, worked together as a team. Thank you, Mike Graham, for your generous invitation to rekindle the spark in each of us that first was lit so long ago on a Mountain in South Central Tennessee, where we became men: The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Dave and Mike-at the helm

Sunset at Marsh Harbour

PLEASE ENJOY THE FOLLOWING VIDEO DOCUMENTARY HIGHLIGHT OF OUR ADVENTURE, PROVIDED BY THE DRONE AIRCRAFT I TOOK WITH US ON THIS TRIP.  LAUNCHING AND RETRIEVING THE DRONE WHILE ON A MOVING, OPERATING SAILBOAT WAS PROBABLY MY MOST INTENSE DRONE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE YET. 

MY DJI MAVIC PRO IS A REMARKABLE MACHINE. MY FRIENDS ON THIS TRIP EVEN MORE REMARKABLE YET FOR PUTTING UP WITH MY FLYING CAMERA EXPERIMENTS!

CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING VIDEO, AND TURN UP THE VOLUME:

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CREDITS:

Photography: David Etzold, John Upperco, Fred Owen, Raymond Leathers, Mike Graham.  Edited and arranged by Dave Etzold.

Drone Video: DJI Mavic Pro

Pilot: Dave Etzold

Host: Michael Graham, Birmingham, Alabama

Boats:Luna Sea” and “Blarneymon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~ by Dave Etzold on September 24, 2017.

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